December 21, 2014 / 29th of Kislev, 5775
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01/03/2012
Building New Connections in Poland

Aviad Tamir is the 2011-2012 JDC Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow in International Jewish Service. Aviad is originally from Israel, earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and completed his Master’s degree in Public Policy at the Lauder School of Government, Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Prior to his role as a RIG Fellow, Aviad worked in Israel’s office of the Prime Minister as an Advisor to the Director General in the Ministry for Senior Citizens. He is currently based in Warsaw, Poland.

Aviad (right) outside a Kosher cafe in Krakow

The Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellowship in International Jewish Service is an experience like no other. I am JDC’s 27thRIG Fellow, and if you look back at the experiences of the last 26 RIG Fellows, no two years are the same. Each fellow works with JDC staff to identify and design their placements which are also shaped by timely and critical situations identified by JDC and in consideration of the special qualifications of the individual fellow.

I moved from Israel to New York for my initial Fellowship Orientation period. I had suitcases of clothing for different climates, open-mindedness about new people, culture and foods, and was ready for whatever my next steps would be – or at least I thought so. During my orientation period, I met with a variety of staff and past Fellows, and read as much as I could about JDC’s programs overseas. I even had the chance to travel to Ethiopia with a JDC Next Gen Young Professional’s service trip and gain exposure to JDC’s non-sectarian programs, as well as a deeper understanding of the Next Gen Initiative, which my placement is a part of. You can imagine just how eager I was to venture to my first identified assignment as a RIG Fellow.

Anti-Nazi graffiti in Krakow (Photo: Aviad Tamir)

I arrived in Poland a month ago for my first placement, and I am currently conducting research for the local JDC office in Warsaw about Jewish life in smaller communities across Poland, and developing plans for additional outreach and young adult programming. Never did I expect to end up in Poland – a country that means a great deal to me personally, as my grandparents were born there. Growing up in Israel, I was mainly exposed to the image of Poland in the context of Holocaust history and Anti-Semitism. Today, I see a place that is making a come-back as a center of Jewish life.

The Jewish studies departments in universities are packed. In fact, a large portion of the world’s students in Yiddish Studies study in Poland.. Visitors come from all over the world to explore their past and participate in cultural events, including the biggest Jewish cultural festival in Europe which takes place in Krakow, attracting thousands every year.

Moreover, while in some communities around Europe the numbers are declining and the leadership is facing significant challenges regarding how to accommodate the next generation, the Jewish community here is a thriving and growing community. The community still faces some identity issues and the memories of their complicated past, yet, as my friend Jonathan Ornstein, the Director of the Krakow JCC, likes to say, “The world today should learn from Poland, as Poland has much to show the rest of the Jewish world in terms of focusing on the future while dealing with a difficult past.”

JDC has responded to the growing Jewish community with a number of different points of focus. JDC works on the national level here, creating educational and cultural events in big communities; providing basic assistance for those in need, including food, socialization and medicine; and creating programs that focus on development and leadership for young adults.

However, JDC understands the importance of expanding its activities and reaching out to Jews wherever they are in Poland, not just large cities. In my research, I’m addressing this issue, examining the challenges of operating within smaller, more isolated Polish Jewish communities. Therefore, my research requires extensive traveling around the country and meeting with community leaders, supporters and professionals who serve in these local Jewish communities.

While traveling around Poland and meeting wonderful people, I have found Poland to be a fascinating country with a rich culture and Jewish history. Although I’ve only been in here for a short time, I already feel that my perspective and the image of Poland I arrived with have changed dramatically.

One of my greatest experiences so far, which emphasizes the importance of JDC’s effort to connect with the small communities was through the JDC “Chanukah Caravan”. I spent a day on the road in a small mini-van with 10 madrichim, stopping in various small communities to prepare Chanukah events.  For most of these communities, these events are the only time where they can gather around and practice their Judaism publicly as they are far from the big cities and don’t have synagogues or other Jewish institutions around.

I joined the Caravan and visited Czestochowa, a city in south Poland. I must admit that even my cynical Israeli character, who is usually too cool to get emotional around holiday time, was caught in the holiday spirit as I sat together with the crowd made up of all ages, spinning dreidels and singing Chanukah songs. Excited by what I just participated in, I commented to a JDC staff person who accompanied us that it’s amazing to see the existence of Jewish life in such a small community of only a few dozen, where even the elderly are so enthusiastic. She responded that while we believe that we are doing Chanukah for them,  the elderly actually think that they are doing it for us, and they are excited to welcome 10 young Jewish Madrichim to their small community, as this symbolizes Jewish revival for them, and the future of Jewish life in Poland. Whatever the reason was for having the community members participate in the event, it was clear that we all needed each other, young and old,  a combination of history and a renewed spirit and commitment to Jewish life.

Havdalah ceremony at weekend leadership seminar for JDC volunteers (Photo: Aviad Tamir)

As I proceed in my research over the next few weeks, I’m looking forward to exploring the culture, tasting the local food, and continuing to struggle with learning the Polish language in my ongoing search of today’s Poland. Whether it was fate, or simply because my skills matched the needs here in Poland which brought me here, in many ways I have returned home to my family’s roots, to the thriving Jewish center that once existed for my ancestors, and I hope to discover more about my personal history, while helping the JDC to grow their scope of programming over the remaining weeks that I am here.  Coming back to Poland more than 70 years after my family was forced to leave, and helping to revive the Jewish community feels like victory.

There's still time to apply for the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship in International Jewish Service. Learn more at http://jdc.org/ralph - applications must be submitted by January 15, 2012.

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